Jones to join forces with Zacharias squad Winnipeg curling legend’s competitive fire still raging

When Jennifer Jones announced her iconic team was splitting ways after this season, it was the end of a long chapter in her curling career.

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This article was published 17/03/2022 (199 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Jennifer Jones announced her iconic team was splitting ways after this season, it was the end of a long chapter in her curling career.

But she was not closing the book.

On Thursday, one of the sport’s all-time greats revealed her plans. Jones has agreed to guide the young, talented Mackenzie Zacharias crew for the foreseeable future, beginning this fall.

Manitoba skip Mackenzie Zacharias releases a rock as they play Quebec at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts at Fort William Gardens in Thunder Bay, Ont. on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press files)

Even after a record-tying six Canadian championships, two world titles and a couple of Olympics — one of them gold — her decision is simple: at 47, she still wants to play more.

“I’ve got that spark inside,” she told the Free Press, by phone from her home near Barrie, Ont.

Zacharias and her sister, second Emily Zacharias, hail from Altona, third Karlee Burgess from Nova Scotia, and lead Lauren Lenentine from Prince Edward Island.

When they got a call with an offer that would put them under the wing of one of the greatest to play the game, the young foursome leaped to sign on to the new Team Jennifer Jones.

“It’s definitely a pinch-me moment,” Zacharias said.

“I’m overjoyed that Jennifer Jones would even think about playing with us, or that she even knew who I was. To realize that she had recognized some of the talent in our team, and saw that we were trying to get to the top of women’s curling… she’s going to be able to take us from where we are now, to above and beyond.”

“I’m overjoyed that Jennifer Jones would even think about playing with us, or that she even knew who I was.”–Mackenzie Zacharias

Canada’s Jennifer Jones, competes, during the women’s curling match against Denmark, at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Beijing. (Nariman El-Mofty / The Associated Press files)

The plan will see Jones simply take the reins of the existing Team Zacharias to make a five-person squad, similar to the one Jones ran for the last two seasons. Lenentine and Emily Zacharias will alternate at lead, though there will be flexibility: for instance, Jones said, there may be events where Zacharias calls the shots, and Jones steps back to watch.

As it stands, the idea is to commit for a full quadrennial, although they will re-evaluate every season.

“I’m so excited,” Jones said. “Our goal is to win, to win the Scotties. They’ve had so much success on their own, but they want to learn, they want to be better, they want to soak it all up and figure out how to be successful, and they feel like I can do that for them.”

At just 22 and only two years removed from her world junior championship gold, Zacharias had already won her first provincial women’s title, and led her team to be ranked 13th in the world this season.

Still, they were hungry for more. Zacharias’s team had agreed to put careers on the back burner, to give curling a go. They even all live together, having moved from home to focus on curling.

On paper, it makes for a great story: a curling legend in the sunset years of a storied career, leading a team of blazing young guns. There is also the fact that it allows Jones to keep playing out of Manitoba, which was important both for her own love of the province, and in honour of her late father, Larry Jones, who championed the sport here.

There’s also this: in speaking with Zacharias, her thoughts drift back to that time, 12 years ago, when she invited a talented young player named Kaitlyn Lawes to come join her team. Back then, Lawes was just one year out of her own head-turning junior skipping career, and, well, every curling fan knows how that chemistry turned out.

Mackenzie Zacharias gives her sweepers instructions during a shot in the second end of the Manitoba Scotties Tournament of Hearts final Sunday at the Carberry Plains Recreation Centre. (Lucas Punkari/The Brandon Sun files)

“I just remember the excitement, the energy she brought, the love of the game,” Jones said. “I feel like we connected. And when I talk to these girls, as much as they are young, they’re mature beyond their years in the sense that they’ve had a goal for their entire life, and they’ve figured out how to achieve it. So, they’re very determined, very focus-driven.

“As much as they’re younger than me, I feel like their curling mentality is on par,” she continued. “Their focus and determination is equal. If I am going to leave curling, it’s a great way to feel like I’ve maybe helped mentor the next generation.”

”If I am going to leave curling, it’s a great way to feel like I’ve maybe helped mentor the next generation.”–Jennifer Jones

Zacharias sees the echo of Lawes’s trajectory with Jones in more ways than one. Lawes, for instance, blossomed into one of the most technically superb sweepers in curling; Zacharias, who has never spent much time at any position other than skip, is eager to work on her own brushing, learn from different sweeping coaches and build up more strength in the gym.

Above all, though, she’s ready to soak up all that Jones knows about the game.

“We know exactly where we want to get to, and have similar goals and very high expectations of ourselves,” she said of her team. “Our downfall is that we haven’t been playing the women’s game for that long. So, playing third for Jen I’m just going to be able to soak that strategy in, and that’s going to be an absolutely fantastic experience. I cannot wait for that.”

They’ll likely start off in a big way. Based on their current rankings, the new team is expected to qualify for the first few Grand Slam of Curling events next season. That will still be very new territory for their crew: Burgess and Lenentine have played in one, while the Zacharias sisters will be making their first Grand Slam appearance at the Player’s Championship this April.

Canadian skip Jennifer Jones keeps an eye on a shot as they face the team from the Russian Olympic Committee at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Monday, February 14, 2022. (Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press files)

Now, they get to look ahead and know they’ll be kicking off their 2022 season against many of Canada — and even the world’s — best.

“We’re just in awe of what next season is going to look like. We have no idea what to expect, because we’ve never been in this situation before,” Zacharias said.

“But we’re so excited to take it step by step, and see where it goes, and go full in on curling. We have a lot of potential. Things are only going to go up for us, and I think Jen recognizes that and is ready to take us under her wing.”

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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